Autism in Schools

Autism in Schools is a phrase that ESPCF has mentioned recently in social media posts and news updates. But what exactly is it? And what is the purpose of the project?

About the project

Autism in Schools (AiS) is a national project funded by the NHS which aims to improve school experiences for autistic children and young people within their school communities – more detail about the background is further down in this article.

And while the name of the project is autism in schools, the work will be broader than this. For example, hearing from parent carers of children and young people with any additional need or disability. This is because there are aspects that are important regardless of needs, such as building good relationships, good communication, and feeling valued – for both pupils and parents. This should also mean that more families can be supported and empowered with workshops, training, and peer to peer support.

The project is expected to run until December 2025, and there are three strands to the programme which are set out below (although there is some overlap between them all). Ten schools in East Sussex are taking part and parent carers at any of those schools can come along to the groups which are being run.

1. Support for parent carers

This is the part that ESPCF is most involved with, and it comprises two different elements:

Parent carer feedback
This is being gathered via an ESPCF survey sent out in February 2024 to the participating schools, asking parent carers about different aspects of school life. This included questions about:

  • identification and support of SEND (special educational needs and disabilities)
  • wellbeing
  • the school environment
  • communication with or from staff
  • whether reasonable adjustments are made
  • whether parent carers felt valued and listened to when talking to school about their child.

The survey questions will be asked again a year or so on to see whether things have got better, worse, or stayed the same. Surveys were also sent at this time to all school staff, and to children and young people at the schools.

ESPCF is working closely with advisors from CLASS – East Sussex County Council’s Communication, Learning, and Autism Support Service. In March, the ESPCF engagement workers started visiting schools with CLASS advisors to meet with SENCOs and begin discussing the surveys as well as arranging the school groups (see the next section). This is to ensure that the feedback from families contributes to shaping the training and support that is being provided to schools. For example, where parents have highlighted that their child’s needs have not been fully identified because of masking, this can then feature more prominently in staff training.

It is hoped that parent carers, and children and young people, will be directly involved with training, helping to bring lived experience to the forefront.

The project also promotes the involvement of families, including children and young people, in reviewing policies and practices within the schools.

Direct support for parents and carers

ESPCF is working alongside the SENCOs in each of the participating schools to set up SEND parent carer groups. These will be a space for parent carers to get together, share their views, and to help build understanding of processes and support, as well as identify what information and advice, for example, they want to be arranged (according to what is needed). For example, workshops or sessions from external speakers on topics about sleep or sensory needs, sessions with school staff about different interventions, or documentation such as support profiles and plans.

Families have also said how important it can be simply to have a cup of tea and a chat with other parents.

2. Support for pupils

Children and young people will be an integral part of this project, with their views and experiences helping to shape SEND support in school. An example of this is where school staff and the CLASS advisors have been arranging sensory walks around school grounds with autistic pupils. These walks are a great opportunity for pupils to talk about the school environment, and whether there are changes that can be made to accommodate their sensory needs.

ESPCF has heard how these walks have also had a positive knock-on effect of bringing pupils together, and empowering them to understand and advocate for their needs.

3. Training and support for school staff

Most of the training provided as part of this project will be for all school staff and not just teachers and teaching assistants. This is to ensure that a whole school approach is embedded towards supporting children and young people with SEND. The training is based on the areas for development and improvement identified by staff themselves, and by pupils and parent carers.

East Sussex schools

In East Sussex, the project involves two secondary schools, Gildredge House School in Eastbourne and Priory School in Lewes, and the primary schools that feed into these secondary schools, which are:

Lewes: Wallands Primary, Southover Primary, South Malling Primary, Western Road Primary
Eastbourne: Gildredge House Primary, Ocklynge Junior, Motcombe Community Infant School, Pashley Down Infant School

Background to the project

The project emerged out of NHS England’s transforming care initiative, which identified that there were too many missed opportunities to help autistic children and young people before they reached crisis pointdue to their needs not being identified or met in school or by other services.

ESPCF’s involvement in the programme started in November 2023 with a meeting between the senior manager for targeted support services at East Sussex County Council and ESPCF. A brief overview of the project was provided for ESPCF, along with a request for the forum to get involved. Further planning meetings followed, with representatives from CLASS in West Sussex who are overseeing the project.

ESPCF also had a separate meeting with its counterparts in West Sussex where the project has been running for several years, to hear about how it is progressing.
A group called the Autism in Schools Project Community of Practice meets regularly and this is where more information and case studies are shared. For example, a head teacher and a SENCO from two different schools came to talk about how the project has been having a significant positive impact.

ESPCF will continue to share progress of the project with East Sussex parent carers, including updates on the parent carer groups, and when feedback is reviewed further down the line to understand if things are getting better, worse, or if there is no change as a result of the project.